Pakistan Christian teen detained over ‘Koran burning’

In Pakistan, it is illegal to drink, eat or even smoke in public during Ramadan. You can be sent to jail, heavily fined, or may even be beaten by vigilantes.

Pakistani police have arrested a Christian teenager after he was allegedly caught burning pages of the Koran. It’s the latest incident in Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy-related arrests and vigilante killings.

Pakistan Blasphemie Proteste gegen Mädchenschule in Lahore (Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)

Police said Sunday that Asif Massih, an 18-year-old member of the minority Christian community, was caught “red handed” desecrating the Muslim holy book, the Koran. The incident took place in the central Punjab province.

“On the night of August 12, police received a complaint that a Christian boy has been found burning pages of the holy Koran outside the shrine,” Asghar Ali, a police official, told the AFP news agency.

Another security official, Pervaiz Iqbal, said a crowd of 200 people had gathered outside the police station demanding that Massih be handed over to them for vigilante punishment.

“We then secretly moved the culprit to the police station in Wazirabad where he was interrogated and confessed to his crime,” Iqbal said.

A sensitive matter

Massih was charged under section 295-B of Pakistan’s penal code that makes the death sentence mandatory for insulting Islam.

Blasphemy is a highly sensitive topic in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, where around 97 percent of its 180 million inhabitants are Muslim. Rights advocates have long been demanding a reform of the controversial blasphemy laws, which were introduced by the Islamic military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s.

Activists say the laws have little to do with blasphemy and are often used to settle petty disputes and personal vendettas. Religious groups oppose any change to the blasphemy law and consider it necessary for Pakistan’s Islamic identity.

In April, 23-year-old journalism student Mashal Khan was killed by a vigilante mob over allegations of blasphemy in Pakistan’s northwestern city of Mardan.

At least 65 people have been murdered by vigilante mobs over blasphemy allegations since 1990.

Living in fear

Pakistan’s Christians and other religious minorities complain of legal and social discrimination. In the past few years, many Christians and Hindus have been brutally murdered over unproven blasphemy allegations.

One of Pakistan’s most high profile blasphemy cases is that of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who was found guilty of committing blasphemy while working in the fields in 2009 and was sentenced to death. In 2014, her death sentence was upheld by the Lahore High Court. Amnesty International called the verdict a “grave injustice.”

Read: Asia Bibi’s appeal against death penalty – A test case for Pakistan

In one case, a young girl between the ages of 10 to 14 years with Down syndrome, was accused in August of 2012 of burning pages upon which verses of the Koran were inscribed. Rimsha Masih was taken into police custody and only released months later, when charges were dropped. The case caused an uproar in her home town and beyond and sparked riots and violence against Christians in the region. In 2013, she and her family relocated to Canada.

In 2014, a Christian couple was beaten to death for allegedly desecrating a copy of the Koran. Their bodies were subsequently burned in a brick kiln.

State support

Pakistan’s liberal activists blame their country’s authorities for emboldening religious fanatics.

In June, a Pakistani court sentenced a man to death for committing blasphemy on Facebook.

“This vigilantism is being supported by the state as well as the judiciary. Religious clerics are fanning hatred. Even the civil society has failed to perform its duties,” Aatif Afzal, an Islamabad-based rights activist and communication strategist with a media development organization, told DW.

Government critics and secular writers in Pakistan fear religious extremists and the government alike when it comes to blasphemy allegations, which are enough to put them in prison or get vigilante mobs to lynch them.

Read: Blasphemy allegations – the new way of muzzling free speech in South Asia

The “abduction” of liberal bloggers in January – allegedly by Pakistan’s security forces – and the lynching of a secular journalism student shocked activists and the journalist community in Pakistan. There has been increased social media vigilantism, which is forcing critics of the government and military as well as human rights activists to censor their thoughts and words.

Activist Afzal says that blasphemy violence will not stop in Pakistan until the government takes firm action against vigilantism and those who wrongly accuse people of blasphemy.

“It can be a defining moment in Pakistan’s war against religious extremism. But I am afraid the political parties will not act. They are only interested in securing their vote bank,” Afzal told DW, adding that Pakistani civil society will continue to build pressure on the government to reform blasphemy laws.

A Christian Man in Pakistan was Sentenced to Death for Sharing “Blasphemous” Material on WhatsApp

since his death sentence, fear has swept across the Christian community in the area. We rarely venture out of our house and live in constant fear. We know that anything can happen to us.

DW talks to his brother about the court conviction and the plight of minorities in Pakistan.

On Friday, an anti-terrorism court in eastern Pakistan sentenced Nadeem James, a 35-year-old Christian, to death on blasphemy charges. James, a tailor by profession, was accused by a friend of sharing “blasphemous messages” on WhatsApp’s text messaging service.

Blasphemy is a highly sensitive topic in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, where around 97 percent of its 180 million inhabitants are Muslim. Rights advocates have long been demanding a reform of the controversial blasphemy laws, which were introduced by the Islamic military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s.

Pakistan Nadeem James (DW/S. Khan)Nadeem James

 

Activists say the laws have little to do with blasphemy and are often used to settle petty disputes and personal vendettas. Religious groups oppose any change to the blasphemy law and consider it necessary for Pakistan’s Islamic identity.

Pakistan’s Christians and other religious minorities complain of legal and social discrimination. In the past few years, many Christians and Hindus have been brutally murdered over unproven blasphemy allegations.

One of Pakistan’s most high profile blasphemy cases is that of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who was found guilty of committing blasphemy while working in the fields in 2009 and was sentenced to death. In 2014, her death sentence was upheld by the Lahore High Court. Amnesty International called the verdict a “grave injustice.”  In one case, a young girl between the ages of 10 to 14 years with Down syndrome, was accused in August of 2012 of burning pages upon which verses of the Koran were inscribed. Rimsha Masih was taken into police custody and only released months later, when charges were dropped. The case caused an uproar in her home town and beyond and sparked riots and violence against Christians in the region. In 2013, she and her family relocated to Canada.

In 2014, a Christian couple was beaten to death for allegedly desecrating a copy of the Koran. Their bodies were subsequently burned in a brick kiln.

Read more: Pakistan journalism student latest victim of blasphemy vigilantes

In an interview with DW, James’ brother, Faryaad Masih, rejects blasphemy allegations against his brother and says his family has been living in constant fear since James’ arrest in July 2016.

DW: You deny that your brother, Nadeem James, sent blasphemous messages through WhatsApp. Do you have any proof to substantiate your claims?

Faryaad Masih: Police say that my brothers sent blasphemous material through WhatsApp but those messages could easily have been sent by James’ Muslim friends through his phone. Actually, the main complainant in the case is the one who forwarded those messages.

Why would James’ friends make false allegations against him?

James has three friends who live in the Gujarat area. Their names are Shakeel, Yasir and Akram. Our neighbor’s daughter, Nargis, fell in love with James although she knew that he is married with two children. His friends told him he could only marry Nargis if he converted to Islam although the girl had no problem with James’ religion. My brother refused to convert to Islam, and that created a rift among friends.

How did the people in the area react after the “blasphemy” news broke?

As soon as the news spread on July 4, last year, a crowd of around 200 people surrounded our houses. James, another brother of mine and I were at work at the time. When we came to know about this, we went into hiding. The mob was ready to set our houses on fire, but police stopped them.

James surrendered after two days but our family had to move to another area for safety. It saddens me that people with whom we had lived for over 17 years became our enemies after the incident.

Are you still afraid?

After James’ arrest things became quite normal. But since his death sentence, fear has swept across the Christian community in the area. We rarely venture out of our house and live in constant fear. We know that anything can happen to us.

Pakistan Lahore Protest Trauer nach Anschlag Christenverfolgung (picture-alliance/dpa/I. Sheikh)Pakistan’s Christians and other religious minorities complain of legal and social discrimination

 

Who is providing you legal help?  No one is helping us. Our cattle have been stolen. I ran a furniture shop with a Muslim friend who gave me only 40,000 rupees [316 euros] for furniture worth over 250,000 rupees [1,977 euros]. When I demanded more money, he started threatening me. Our neighbors don’t talk to us and people in the area are reluctant to interact with us.

Do you plan to appeal James’ death sentence?

We are hiring a new lawyer through a non-governmental organization. We will appeal against his conviction and pray for his release. Our previous lawyer did not defend James properly. He did not even ask the court to investigate how the blasphemous message originated.

What kinds of problems do Christians have to face in Pakistan?

James told me about a 14-year-old Christian girl in his jail who has been convicted of blasphemy. How can such a young girl commit such a thing? There is no justice for Christians in Pakistan.

What sort of help are you expecting from Pakistan’s civil society over James’ issue?

We are poor people. Mine and James’ wives have also been implicated in a false case of abetment. I am an illiterate person, so is James. He did not complete his primary education. His friends framed him. The authorities should take notice of our situation.

The interview was conducted by Sattar Khan, DW’s Islamabad correspondent.